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THE DUCHESS – Rachel Portman

September 19, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Duchess is what’s known colloquially in Britain as a ‘bodice-ripper’ – a period drama with strong romantic and sexual overtones, in which the corset-clad leading lady is repeatedly ravished by a previously refined gentleman, much to the collective outrage of the aristocracy. Keira Knightly plays the lady in question: Georgiana, the real life 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, who was reviled for her extravagant political and personal life. The film, which was directed by Saul Dibb, also stars Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper and Hayley Atwell, and features a new original score by the Queen of the English Costume Drama, Rachel Portman.

It’s been quite a while since Portman scored a major movie; her last successful effort was The Lake House in 2006, and before that you have to go back to The Manchurian Candidate in 2004 to find a film of hers which made any significant mark on the box office. The thing about Portman is that, by and large, when you see her name attached to a film, you know exactly what you’re going to get: lush string writing augmented by soft woodwinds, a generally light and romantic tone, a slightly upbeat bounce in the tempo, and an overall sense of florid ‘Englishness’. And that’s exactly what you get in The Duchess.

Her main theme, “The Duchess”, is a typically elegant piece, this time featuring Pavel Belousek’s attractive solo cello as the lead instrument. It’s a prototypical Portman piece – think The Cider House Rules, or Emma, or The Legend of Bagger Vance – and, as is always the case, it’s very attractive to listen to. It reappears in later cues such as “Six Years Later”, “Grey Comes Back” and in the “End Titles”, which provides an attractive and graceful coda. Elsewhere, the rhapsodic cello writing in “Gee and Grey Together in Bath” adds an almost subliminal sense of eroticism to the proceedings, which enlivens the album no end. However, beyond this main title piece, a lot of the rest the score is actually surprisingly dark, which is not something you often find in a Portman score.

Cues such as “Mistake of Your Life”, “I Think Of You All the Time”, “Gee Gives Up Baby”, “Never See Your Children Again” and “Gee Is Taken to the Country” are moody and evocative, occasionally bordering on the tragic. These cues make especially prominent use of the lower tones of the string section – basses, cellos, violas – as well as an unexpectedly effective cimbalom, which adds a sense of tension and uncertainty to the music. The apex of the dark writing is unquestionably “Rape”, a menacing cue with an almost John Williams-ish tone to the string writing.

The thing about Rachel Portman, however, is that despite the unquestionable attractiveness of her music, she is starting to get left behind by her peers. As the first ever female composer to win a score Oscar in 1996, she has rightly been seen as a trailblazer for her gender, but in recent years composers such as Debbie Wiseman, Anne Dudley, the late Shirley Walker, and Jane Antonia Cornish have overtaken her in terms of the quality and scope of their output. One only needs to listen to Wiseman’s Arséne Lupin, or Dudley’s American History X, or Cornish’s Island of Lost Souls to hear that these women have tossed aside the musical shackles that have hitherto kept them scoring nothing but romances and period dramas, and have now embraced genres and styles of writing that Portman has not. It might be that Portman doesn’t want to write action or fantasy music – I have no idea – but her steadfast adherence to one, single kind of writing throughout her career is starting to become a little predictable. Nevertheless, having said that, The Duchess remains a pleasant and entertaining album, despite its familiarity.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • The Duchess (1:41)
  • Mistake of Your Life (3:27)
  • I Think Of You All the Time (3:41)
  • No Mood for Conversation (0:59)
  • Gee and Grey Make Love (1:57)
  • Gee and Grey Together in Bath (2:57)
  • German Dance in D Major (written by Ludwig van Beethoven) (3:16)
  • Awakening (1:25)
  • Rape (1:53)
  • Bess’s Sons (2:03)
  • Gee Gives Up Baby (1:33)
  • Six Years Later (2:33)
  • Some Things Too Late, Others Too Early (1:06)
  • Adagio from String Quartet in D Major (written by Joseph Haydn) (5:49)
  • Never See Your Children Again (2:02)
  • Grey Comes Back (1:53)
  • Gee Is Taken to the Country (1:37)
  • End Titles (2:08)

Running Time: 42 minutes 08 seconds

Lakeshore Records LKS-340392 (2008)

Music composed by Rachel Portman. Conducted by David Snell. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian and Rachel Portman. Recorded and mixed by Chris Dibble. Edited by Yann McCullough Album produced by Rachel Portman.

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